Diversionary Tactics was the title of a poster I presented at the Association of American Geographers Conference back in 2006. it was about a hydropower development project in Manitoba that was making a major diversion on the Churchill River, through a man-made channel, upon which would be built several hydropower dams. The dams would not be in great locations – mostly coniferous forest, without major topography, meaning the water would spread out – not up. It would kill a lot of biomass, which would in turn rot, produce methane, and generally be a bad ecological situation. Tree stubs and floating logs would pepper the reservoir, posing safety risks to boaters. Water levels would constantly fluctuate, making it hard for the riparian ecosystem to stabilize, and in the winter ice would not form consistently, which can trap and kill animals. On top of that, the dams were on traditional First Nations lands, and would alter the land the tribes relied on. Worse, however, was the fact that these projects tended to divide the community and fuel corruption. First Nations communities in Canada already suffer some of the highest rates of drug and alcohol abuse, suicide, and violence in the nation. This type of development was simply a new chapter in a legacy of environmental racism and injustice that had long plagued them. The saddest part to me, was that this infrastructure was being built to sell power to the United States – to Minneapolis and Wisconsin, and Chicago. It wasn’t even benefitting the local communities that felt the impacts most acutely. And most people in the States had no idea…
It was while I studied this that I began to better understand natural resource development. It fascinated me. Particularly when it comes to power. The methods we rely on to fuel our increasingly electronic lifestyles are often pretty far removed from our lives. We don’t tend to see the costs, and as a result we don’t often involve ourselves in the debates on how to develop our natural resources in responsible ways. Thankfully, there are some legislative tools (the National Environmental Policy Act) that encourage us to step back for a moment and consider our choices, our alternatives, and consider public input before major projects can move forward. These tools are pretty effective in the United States to curtain truly BAD development policies. I tend to think, however, that our legislative tools make us a bit lazy as citizens. When was the last time you participated in a public meeting on an issue that affected your community? When did you last contact your representatives to let them know how you felt about a bill or a development that personally impacts you? I can almost guarantee that unless you have a pipeline coming through your backyard, you probably haven’t been very engaged in the public decision-making process of late. I know, because this is what I do every damn day. I try to facilitate this process. Though I don’t always necessarily support the PROJECTS being developed, I wholeheartedly support the PROCESS they must go through to secure permits, and prove that they are necessary and that better alternatives are not out there. In a sense, I feel a bit like a public defense attorney; these processes are part of the structure that makes our country what it is, and it is my job to see that the process is followed that the public is consulted and made aware or these projects, and that they have an opportunity to educate themselves and make informed decisions about the natural resources issues that impact them.
It’s intriguing to me how my worldview on the subject has shifted with time and age. There was a time when Xcel Energy monitored my blog because I was so adamantly opposed to Manitoba’s hydropower developments. Now, however, with a wider wold view, I recognize that there is a place for certain development, and unless you can claim to live entirely off the grid, we are all, in essence, complicit in supporting that development through our need for power, for gasoline to fuel our cars, for water to take a shower each day.
Yesterday I was asked to help write a rebuttal piece to an article by Yvon Chouinard, the owner of Patagonia, which was recently published in the New York Times. He was maligning dams and suggesting we tear them down. I deeply respect Chouinard. I worked at Patagonia and I am proud of his record of being a thought-leader and a visionary who has also made business work without compromising his principles. Of course, I can barely afford to buy anything from Patagonia as it caters mostly to rich, white people. But, it’s good quality product and it is made responsibly. That said, the inflammatory nature of the article he wrote also bothered me a bit. Most people today in the United States recognize the perils of dams. New hydropower dams in the US are simply not being constructed due to the lack of suitable locations, and the NEPA process. It’s too hard to permit these structures. Plus, they have significant riparian impacts. But, they do produce energy free of greenhouse gas emissions, and they help to manage water flows and provide storage. They are not all bad.
I wrestled for a moment with the fact that my 23-year-old self would not have been able to write a rebuttal to Yvon Chouinard, but my 31-year-old self sees the need and the responsibility of having that conversation in a public sphere. I am excited to participate in this project, and to be making my dreams of impacting and improving natural resources debate and policy a reality!